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Heaven's sake: why Japan's rice wine is rising in popularity and isn't just for drinking with sushi

The i logo The i 03/10/2018 Ellen Manning
a close up of a bottle © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Sitting in a classroom surrounded by strangers, I’m struggling to remember the temperature at which sparkling sake should be served. Thanks to an earlier tasting, I know that it has all the lovely light bubbles of Champagne or Prosecco and that it is served chilled, as appropriate for a drink that is light and fruity and ever so slightly sweet.

I am here to learn all about this rising star of the drinks world. Sake might not be something you come across regularly. If you’ve been to Japan, yes, or if you’ve dined in a Japanese restaurant. But while it is not something you will spot on a restaurant’s wine list, order in the pub or pick up at the off-licence, the fermented-rice drink is growing in popularity. According to Japan’s National Tax Agency, exports to the UK rose 63 per cent from 2012 to 2017 – from 238,000 litres to 388,000 litres.

It is this increased interest in Japan’s national drink that has brought me to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which introduced a Level 1 entry-level course on sake two years ago. Aimed at sommeliers, restaurateurs, industry professionals and enthusiasts, it can be followed up by an expert Level 3 award (there is no Level 2 award).

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Ginjo or non-ginjo?

a cup of coffee © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd We start by learning how sake is made. Often referred to as rice wine, it is made from four ingredients: steamed white rice, water, yeast and koji – mouldy, steamed white rice. The koji breaks down starch in the rice into sugar, which is then “eaten” by the yeast to form alcohol.

After fermentation, sake is filtered then bottled, with optional steps including the addition of high-strength distilled alcohol – not to make it more potent, but to enhance flavour – and water, which helps reduce the ABV (alcohol by volume) from 20 per cent to between 15 and 17 per cent. Most, though not all, is also pasteurised.

Despite popular belief, sake is not as strong as spirits such as vodka. Nor does it all taste the same, with some styles more fruity and floral than others. You don’t have to drink it from traditional ceramic cups and it is not always served warm. For more savoury varieties, known as “non-ginjo” styles, warming them can enhance the flavour, but more fragrant “ginjo” offerings can lose their aroma when they’re heated so are best served chilled.

Fruity and floral

© Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd The variations are wide, and are influenced by everything from how polished the rice is to whether alcohol is added and what yeast is used, but it is sake’s lack of acidity and sweetness that makes it appealing, says Antony Moss, WSET’s director of strategic planning.

“Quite often people find wine acidic, which it is. Sake is very low in acidity and has a sweetness and fruitier flavour,” he says.

Our tutor Honami Matsumoto agrees: “When you first start drinking sake, it’s easy to appreciate something more fruity and floral but there’s much more to the world of sake than that.”

That world includes cloudy styles, sparkling sake and aged koshu sake. We work through them, noting differences in flavour and appearance. We experience how “sake never fights with food” and try pairings with foods designed to emphasise the basic flavours of sweet, sour, bitter salty, umami and spicy.

According to Moss, sake’s lack of acidity means it is not only a good partner for Japanese food, but for other cuisines that benefit from its delicate nature and its savoury, umami characteristics.

'People are starting to experiment more'

a person posing for the camera © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd Fellow course-goer Keiko Urakawa, originally from Japan, is keen to open a bar in London attached to an Italian restaurant. “Italian food is incredibly popular in Japan,” she says. “The concept is similar to Japanese food – it’s about simplicity and umami flavours. When I dined at Italian restaurants, I always felt sake would be better than wine with some dishes. I wanted to break the link between Japanese food and sake.”

For Alex Griffiths, marketing manager at Sapporo, a Japanese restaurant with branches in Manchester and Liverpool, it is its adaptability that is contributing to its popularity. “People are starting to experiment more, introducing it into cocktails, highlighting how versatile it can be rather than just a drink to be consumed with sushi.”

With so much going for it, it’s hard to see what is stopping sake from being the next big thing. One barrier is price, says Moss. “In terms of the entry point, it will be very hard to get anything lower than £10 for a 720ml bottle,” he says.

Lucy Wilson, co-founder of Britain’s first sake brewery Kanpai agrees. “There is often a price barrier to decent sake. That’s why our goal is to make it more accessible by creating smaller bottles.”

Sake may be some way off becoming as popular as wine or beer but fans want to see it take its rightful place on drinks lists across the UK. 

Related: The Top 5 Places You MUST Visit on Your Trip to Japan (POPSUGAR)

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